What to buy for your classroom (and what not to)

July 31, 2012

in classroom management ideas, ideas from my book

The back-to-school displays can tempt you to spend hundreds of dollars on your classroom, can’t they? If you’re wondering What do I NEED to buy for my classroom? the answer is really “nothing.” You have no obligation to spend any money on your classroom, especially when you haven’t begun setting it up and don’t know what you already have. Most schools provide furniture, office supplies (scissors, staples, folders. etc.), bulletin board paper, textbooks, and manipulatives. However, this varies WIDELY from school to school and district to district—so check out your classroom first before buying anything!

Of course, the list of things you COULD buy is endless. I’ve always set a budget for myself (normally around $250 for the school year) and I stick to it.  I’m always amazed at how many things I’m able to pick up throughout the school year for little or no money, so don’t worry if your classroom isn’t fully set up right from the first day.

The following items might be helpful for you to purchase (but you DON’T have to):

  • Bulletin board borders: These can be purchased for about three to six dollars, and can sometimes even be found in dollar stores. Schools usually provide bulletin board paper but not the borders (go figure). Choose ones that can be left up all year if you don’t want to keep redoing your boards.
  • Organizers for your supplies: The school will probably give you a bunch of pens but nothing to put them in, and tons of papers but no place to keep them except a single file cabinet. Here are some organizers I bought for my papers and organizers for lesson materials and files.
  • A calendar to “do” with your kids: Be sure the last teacher in your room didn’t leave you one—these can be expensive.
  • More unusual office supplies your school cannot provide (ask FIRST): Examples are sticky-tack, masking tape, magnets for holding things to the board, ink pads, a dry erase board, dry erase markers, and so on. Due to budget cuts, a school may provide these things one year but not the next, so make no assumptions.
  • Children’s books: These are never a waste of money if you get a range of reading levels so any child you teach has a selection. Some schools provide class libraries but don’t expect to have one. I like to buy kids’ books off of eBay–some people sell them in lots (25 books for $15, for example.) You can see some of my book recommendations for the beginning of the year and read-alouds to help establish class norms and expectations.
  • Misc. tech equipment: I’m not talking about buying computers: I mean the little things that can enhance the technology that the school already provides. If your school provides an LCD projector but no cord to enable sound from it, buy the cord. If you have 2 ethernet jacks and 4 computers, buy a splitter or a wifi router. A $40 purchase can make the difference between perfectly good equipment getting utilized or sitting unused all year.

What you SHOULDN’T buy if you have a limited budget (and who doesn’t?):

  • Decorative posters: Use kid’s artwork, word walls, time lines, class-made charts and other things kids can actually use. Even educational posters can be handmade or printed free from the Internet. Commercial displays are okay, but if money is tight, skip them.
  • Fancy center materials: You can download center materials for free online, borrow reproducible books from other teachers, and so on, AFTER you know what type of activities you want your kids to do. Most likely you won’t be using centers for a few weeks anyway.
  • Stickers, pencils, candy, and other tangible rewards: If you’re on a budget, buy things for your classroom that will last and have a direct impact on student learning for years to come.

Questions to ask yourself when deciding what YOU need:

  • Is this something I need right now, or something I think I might need one day? If it’s not an immediate need, it’s usually smart to wait. You might find you don’t need the item after all, or need something different…or you might find a way to get the need met without spending any money.
  • What purpose does this serve? I try to focus on items that maximize my instructional time. I mostly buy things that make it easier for me to stay organized and for our classroom routines and procedures to run smoothly. The less time that I and the kids have to spend looking for something, the more time we have to focus on teaching and learning. I don’t spend a lot of money on instructional supplies because I’ve taught in schools that had nothing learned how to make it work.
  • Is there any other way for me to get this, other than spending my own money? Can you ask a parent or a business to donate it? Can you trade or swap with someone? Can you make it yourself? Can you find a grant to cover the costs? Be creative!

Remind yourself that:

  • Only you know what a reasonable budget for your situation. Decide in advance how much money you would be comfortable knowing that you’ve spent at the end of the year. Write that number down and don’t exceed it. If you do go over, do so knowing that you will force yourself to go under that amount the next year.
  • There will always be more things you think you need. Just as you’ve accepted that you can’t buy an item from every single fashion trend for clothes and home goods, you have to accept the fact that you can’t buy every classroom material that’s on the market…and that’s okay. Not buying things for your classroom doesn’t make you a “bad teacher” anymore than not buying a new outfit makes you a bad dresser. Don’t feel guilty about saying no!
  • Don’t worry about what everyone else is getting. The items you need for your classroom will be different from what everyone else needs. No two teachers are alike, and no two classrooms are alike.
  • Teaching strategies matter more than teaching materials. Kids learn best from teachers who care about them and are passionate about their work. Fancy materials are just the icing on the cake.
  • Your classroom is a work in progress. It does NOT have to be complete on day one! Let the room evolve as the kids start taking ownership of it. Add to it together.

This post has been adapted from The Cornerstone book and eBook! In it, you’ll find more information on preparing for the first weeks of school, classroom arrangement, avoiding the paper trap, finding and filing instructional resources, organizing a classroom library, and more.

What do YOU think is worth buying (or not) for the classroom? What guidelines do you follow when deciding what to purchase?

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Angela was a classroom teacher for 11 years and currently works as an instructional coach and educational consultant based in New York City. She's created a webinar series on pro-active behavior management and has written 3 books for educators. Check out the blog and free teacher resource pages for photos, tips & tricks, activities, printables, and more.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Karen July 31, 2012 at 10:45 pm

I think buying books for my classroom library is worth the money, but ONLY if they are purchased at garage sales or from reasonably priced thrift stores. The books WILL get torn, spilled on, and thrown around. This is the sign, though, that the books are also being READ.

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2 Angela Watson August 2, 2012 at 10:57 am

Agreed, Karen! I have no problem with used books. Often I’ll point them out to kids and talk about how books are expensive and I’ve spent my own money on them–they get very serious during those conversations! Someone will invariably point out signs of wear and mention that we should take care of our books, which leads us right into a discussion about how to treat (and how not to treat) the classroom library.

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3 Debbie August 1, 2012 at 8:51 am

Hi Angela … great advice here! I’ve taught for 26 years and I still get excited when I see the Back to School supplies start coming out … lol. One thing I always buy for my classroom … well, it’s really more for ME … is some special little thing that makes me feel good. It might be a new mug for my coffee, a cute desk knick-knack … really anything that I see that I love. I don’t spend a lot on it but I make sure that it holds some special meaning for me. Then, throughout the year as things tend to get more and more busy and hectic I can look at or hold my special item and get a moment of calm in my day. It’s something I’ve done for as long as I can remember.

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4 Angela Watson August 2, 2012 at 10:54 am

Thank you, Debbie! What a wonderful idea–I love the concept of buying something minor that holds personal significance and reminds you of your purpose and/or is calming.

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5 Eric August 1, 2012 at 9:31 am

One thing I’ve decided to STOP buying are the cutesy teacher posters with the adages you see on them. I’ve had students comment about having to see the same. old. posters. for umpteen years (I teach high school). So I’m not putting those up this year and instead will create my own posters with good quotes on them that they don’t see often. I can have them enlarged and laminated at the district teacher center for about $1.50 to $3.00. It’s cheap, it’s creative, and it’s original. Other than that, simple, inexpensive things like a couple of floor lamps ($12.00 each at Wal-Mart) can create a wonderful environment where students feel welcomed without all the wonderful decorations I see in many classrooms. This is particularly in the lower grades – no offense intended. I understand the need to make those lower grade classrooms feel inviting and fun. I feel my own room should be inviting.

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6 Angela Watson August 2, 2012 at 10:53 am

Thanks for sharing an upper grades perspective, Eric. I love the idea of choosing quotes that are personally meaningful and displaying them instead of store-bought posters. I also think it would be cool to get student input on which quotes should be displayed–maybe the kids could have an assortment of quotes to choose from and make their own posters that are motivating to them.

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7 Miss B, Busy Bee August 20, 2012 at 12:15 pm

Definitely check out garage sales and see if there is a Freecycle.com group in your area! I have gotten shelves, books, a fish tank…you name it…for free!

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8 Jennifer February 3, 2013 at 10:39 pm

Such a great post! I’m a first year teacher and I busted my tail to get my classroom “set up” on the first day. It was lovely and organized and cooridinated…and I’ve STILL re-done it at least 10 times. Next year, I’ll definitely save some of the effort in the beginning so that I can organize things in a way that works for us. The same goes for buying materials…many of my cute little posters and things are now in the closet. They’ve been replaced with student work and anchor charts. Oh well, now I know! :)

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9 Lisa August 1, 2013 at 1:00 pm

My best purchases for my classroom:

Metal letter trays that lock together. A bit of an investment up front (Target still carries the ones I have), but they’ve already lasted 9 years, still look new, and most importantly, they do not topple when used.

Cheap fabric for bulletin boards. I work at the high school level; they don’t typically provide bulletin board paper. Fabric can be cut to size (no boarders needed), fading is much slower (if at all), does not show staple holes, and can be used for years. If needed, a quick wash will refresh it. Stick to very simple patterns/small prints. Remember, it’s just a background for announcements, student work, etc.

USB Hub. No matter what, you’ll never seem to have enough USB ports for everything you need to do. My local used bookstore/gaming store typically has these as well for just a few bucks. The $15-$20 that office supply stores charge would still be worth it to me. I have a 4 port hub with a longer cord, allowing me to place it on my desk wherever it’s most convenient for me.

Sidenote on school issued supplies:
If your school gives you a say in which model of tape dispenser they’ll order, get the one with the tape hub (the part that holds the roll in place) is attached. Students think it’s amusing to steal the hub.

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10 Brandilee March 30, 2014 at 7:50 am

I learned quickly to avoid patterned bulletin board borders because they ended up never quite matching. Stick to the plain colors. I also stopped buying holiday decorations because the displays become outdated the minute the holiday is over and I didn’t always have time to change them out. Instead I would buy seasonal decorations that would last longer i.e. pumpkins instead of jack o lanterns.
Also, the BEST place to get used books for your classroom is public library book sales. The books are often in great shape, they just have to make room for new ones on the shelf. They are also often covered with plastic book jackets that help them hold up longer. You can also find great nonfiction titles that really appeal to the boys and reluctant readers. Almost all public libraries have a book sale area or an annual event and the prices are near garage sale ones.

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11 Angela Watson March 31, 2014 at 8:25 am

Great tips, Brandilee! Thank you so much for sharing!

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